A fuzzy aura has been generated around Gerald Ford, 38th president of the United States, who died at age 93 on Dec. 26.
He is hailed as a decent man, a “uniter,” who led the nation out of its worst political nightmare, the Watergate scandal. The accolades contrast Ford with the divisive, arrogant politician who currently occupies the White House.
Yet Ford does not deserve any credit as a “uniter.” When I arrived on Capitol Hill in the spring of 1968 as a reporter for this newspaper’s predecessor, the Daily World, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) was still spearheading a racist crusade against Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.). Powell, as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, had pushed through a long list of progressive, pro-people, pro-labor legislation including ground-breaking civil rights laws, Medicare, War on Poverty measures, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and so on. Powell was outspoken in his opposition to the war in Vietnam, often speaking at antiwar rallies.
Ford signed the resolution denying Powell his House seat in January 1967, even though Harlem voters had reelected him in an 80 percent landslide. Powell called it a “political lynching” and Ford was leading the mob.
President Richard Nixon appointed Ford vice president when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign in 1973. A few months later, as a particularly incriminating tape was about to surface implicating Nixon in the Watergate conspiracy, then-White House Chief of Staff Al Haig visited Ford in his Arlington, Va., home to warn him to get ready to assume the presidency. Haig outlined a number of options including that Ford, as soon as he was sworn in as president, would grant Nixon a pardon. Ford always stoutly denied he accepted any quid pro quo as a condition of his appointment as vice president. But it did not quiet the outrage when he actually did grant Nixon a pardon. It is widely seen as the reason he was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The nation might have taken a radically different turn if Ford had not granted that pardon and Nixon had been impeached and convicted for his crimes. The strategy of the ultra-right Republicans was to build a protective firewall around themselves as the Watergate conspiracy was exposed. Their scheme was to pin blame exclusively on Nixon and a narrow circle of advisers. The aim was to block any accounting for the broader political crimes that were coming to light.
At the time, the House Judiciary Committee was preparing articles of impeachment that went far beyond the White House “plumbers” break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, June 17, 1972. A young African American congressman from Detroit, John Conyers, for example, was writing an article charging Nixon with “high crimes” in widening the Vietnam war by illegally invading Cambodia. There were also articles charging Nixon with grave abuses of power in unleashing domestic spying on peaceful law-abiding protesters by the FBI and CIA. Another focused on criminal covert warfare by the CIA including assassinations and coups d’état against foreign governments.
In forcing Nixon to resign and then granting him a pardon, the fix was in. Nixon was removed. But the vast infrastructure built by the ultra-right remained in place. Ford even kept on many of the ringleaders of the worst crimes of this larger Watergate: Henry Kissinger, and two young Republican thugs, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who had been assigned by Nixon to the Office of Economic Opportunity to wreck the agency from the inside. I remember attending a press conference by then-Republican Leon Panetta in which he described in chilling detail their thuggish behavior. Panetta announced he was resigning from the GOP because of this.
True, Ford was forced to acknowledge the nationwide and worldwide outrage over CIA assassinations, signing an executive order banning these crimes, a ban that remained in place until George W. Bush junked it.
But for the most part, the ultra-right came out of the Watergate crisis intact. And Ford’s pardon of Nixon played a huge role in helping them move closer to their goal, realized in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, George Bush (senior), Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the neocon crew unleashed the most brutal anti-worker regime in U.S. history, starting with the smashing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. Every gain won by the working class in the past century was targeted for outright repeal or “death by underfunding.”
Reagan unleashed a drive for total U.S. global domination, including at one point 60 separate “contra” counter-revolutionary wars around the world. He vowed to spend the Soviet Union into bankruptcy in a runaway arms race.
All these ultra-reactionary currents came to a head when the Bush-Cheney regime seized power in 2000 in what this newspaper called “a very American coup.” The 2006 midterm elections marks the first time since Watergate that the people have succeeded in slowing if not stopping this ultra-right juggernaut.
If he had been a man of courage, a defender of the Constitution he was sworn to uphold, Ford might have averted all this tragedy. He could have started by declaring: “I will not pardon that criminal.”
Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.